Painful Leadership Lessons

Because of a disease called Avascular Necrosis, I had both of my hips replaced when I was in my early forties.  When replacing my left hip, a specific type of prosthesis was used to help stabilize me so that I could supposedly rehab more easily.  Included in the many risks of this type of surgery, the use of this type of prosthesis opened me up (pun intended) to a 1 in 3,000 risk of having chronic pain post-surgically.

I guess I should have gone to Las Vegas rather than to that operating room because I beat those odds and have been living with often-crippling and ongoing pain in my left knee, thigh, hip and my coccyx for well over ten years.


The Treatment and Leadership Rehab

After two years of frustration and what seemed like an infinite number of referrals and treatments, I had to give up looking for “cure” for my pain. Doctors, including the head of Orthopedic Reconstruction Surgery at the Mayo Clinic, advised me to start learning how to live with my pain and abandon my search for a permanent fix.

Ever since then, I have expanded my mindfulness practice as a way to get closer to the Buddhist saying,

pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

During this life transition, I have found myself incorporating many of the lessons I have learned into my leadership style.

On an individual basis, I utilize almost exactly the same lessons that Kate Bartolotta describes in her post Eight Things I Learned From Pain.   Along with the terrific medical care I receive from my pain management doctor, I have been able to manage a level of pain that can incapacitate many.

I have learned the lessons of impermanence first hand through my efforts to get through each moment of pain and translated them into techniques of mindful change management for myself and my work colleagues.

Specifically, understanding that nothing is permanent has helped me to help others understand that change, like pain, is inevitable but suffering is indeed optional.

As my teams and I peel back the layers of corporate culture impermanence, we have to be honest about those components over which we have control and, more importantly, those we do not.

Without that understanding, we can not lead those on the front lines who demand stability in an unstable environment.

While my pain is oftentimes exacerbated by my own actions (e.g., doing too much), it also has a nasty habit of flaring up for seemingly no reason as if to remind me that it can never be completely controlled.

In that same way, business leaders have to learn that, no matter the effort put forth by themselves and their direct reports, change (pain) is not always under their control.  In order not to suffer,

we have to learn the lessons of impermanence and understand how to respond to the attending emotions of change rather than simply reacting in a non-productive way.

This obviously is a painful process (again, pun intended!) and is an ongoing one that must account for the skeptics and naysayers. Believe it or not, those Debbie Downers find positive behavioral and emotional reinforcement by inviting further pain into their lives.

Demanding permanence from management is looked upon by one’s peers as a reasonable expectation regardless of the suffering that undoubtedly follows when ongoing change comes down the pike.

However, your leadership team can learn quickly, as mine has, that the inevitability of impermanence has to become the culture in your organization in such a way that, in its absence, the team becomes concerned when further change is late in arriving!

For comprehensive training modules on leadership development topics such as this, please visit our Solutions page.


Ongoing Follow-Up

Living with pain has changed my life.  I have become much more patient, less judgmental and an infinitely better listener and leader who can help businesses realize the long term gain and ROI that results from the utilization of mindful leadership techniques.

Don’t get me wrong – if Aladdin comes along tomorrow with the magic lamp, I’m ready for my pain to go away!

However, the mindful lessons of impermanence I’ve learned have become the gifts that my pain has brought to me.  By sharing with others and, by recalling these lessons during our particularly “painful” episodes, we can more easily move from suffering to living!


Mindful Follow-Up Questions

What form does your pain take and what lessons can you learn from it that applies to your role as a leader? 

How can you mindfully recognize those moments when your suffering or the suffering of your team is a barrier to moving forward? 

What are the strategies you can employ to become “unstuck” in those moments? 

What are some similar barriers that team members have learned to overcome that you can leverage in training that will help others recognize the impermanence of painful moments regardless of whether or not they are controllable?

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